Oakland, California is an ever-changing city rich in diversity, industry, and history. It’s also a beautiful place full of charm, grit, and everything in between.
Daniel Wu went to high school in the Oakland Hills, and these same streets we met on have long been his stomping grounds. He travels much of the time, but when he was back home in Oakland early last year, I made it a point to meet up with him there to shoot his 2017 SEMA build, the Tanto 510.
You might already know Daniel from the AMC series Into the Badlands, where he starred in a leading role as Sunny, or perhaps one or more of his 50-plus previous acting roles, most of which have been Hong Kong films. Daniel completed his first role in Hong Kong in 1998, and several years after he acquired his driver’s license in California. He says he inadvertently became an actor, but that’s a different story.
Growing up skateboarding in California’s Bay Area in the ‘90s meant the impression that the 510 left on Daniel was inevitable. The skating and Datsun scenes were intricately interwoven at the time, so all these years later it’s no surprise to see him in the ultimate 510.
The car was built in collaboration with Troy Ermish, long-time 510 racer, builder, and plain ol’ enthusiast. Daniel essentially handled the design aspects and was responsible for sourcing various parts for the build, while Troy bolted it together with expert know-how.
While there are many special aspects to this 510, there’s one in particular I love the most: This 2017 SEMA build actually worked then, and still works three years later.
Not only that, but Daniel is a car guy just like any of the rest of us. He looks forward to his time at home in Oakland so he can tinker with his collection and, more importantly, get out and drive.
Catching him in town took months of planning, and I actually initially shot the car at Troy Ermish Racing in Tracy, California.
Don’t worry, a shop tour and a feature of Troy’s own 510 race car are in the queue, along with some 35mm scans from my visit.
At Troy’s I learned about some of the finer points of the Tanto project, like the Rebello-built L-Series, its dual Mikuni carburetors, and the Ermish-built components including the exhaust, roll cage, suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes.
We’ll dive into all of this shortly, but what I really love about this 510 is its usability, its clean design elements, and its owner’s bond with the car.
As I just previously alluded to, many SEMA builds don’t seem to have a lot of character. They’re simply a bunch of bolt-on parts that are bolted on for the sake of doing so; to be extreme, to grab people’s attention, and to sell more of said parts. And that’s fine; if there’s ever a place for cars like that it certainly is the SEMA Show.
But even at first glance you can tell this 510 is nothing like that at all.
Daniel told me he was away filming a movie when the build was happening, so he had to find time in his demanding schedule across many timezones to order parts and coordinate with Troy to make it all come together.
The car retains period parts and classic style, with a heavy dose of influence from the ‘90s Datsun scene that Daniel initially fell in love with after his first ride in a 510 at age 14. Yet it didn’t feel like the 48-year-old car it is when riding shotgun, and that’s thanks to the magic worked by Troy Ermish.
Further still, this car looked right at home at SEMA, despite not jumping on any hyped-up parts bandwagons. Through and through, it’s simply a good car.
I loved seeing the car’s newer-looking pale gray paintwork contrasting against the changing skyline in Oakland’s downtown precinct. Just like the city itself, this 510 has been entirely reimagined, while still harking to and proudly displaying its initial design.Elements
Daniel didn’t wildly diverge from the Datsun’s original design language, instead opting for simple fender flares and a deep bronze color scheme for the trim as well as the glorious 15-inch RS Watanabe wheels. The near-satin bronze finish works well with the glossy gray the car wears, which was borrowed from the Porsche paint palette.
Other details include Marchal lights with yellow-tinted inner lamps, as well as custom emblems, fender mirrors, a front air dam, and a rear ducktail spoiler.
While modified from front to back, the 510 still retains an OEM quality in terms of balance and design. Likewise, the interior has been cranked up a notch or two with European influences, race-type lightening measures, and classy choices from top to bottom. The houndstooth inserts on the Porsche RSR-style seats aren’t exactly subtle, but the interior as a whole still feels correct.
The factory steering wheel complements the simple gauge cluster that has been added where a radio would have been, and the red belts and roll bar don’t look out of place when you take in the whole car, either. Further, the clean pull-strap door panels by BayDM add to the simplicity in the cabin.
Something tells me this car is going to look good for decades to come, while plenty of other builds for 2017’s SEMA Show have already fallen out of favor. So, the styling is spot-on, but what about performance?
The 510 always seems a bit overshadowed by its sleeker and more powerful cousin, the S30, but the small, boxy sedan showed its potency on track through the likes of Pete Brock and his famous BRE program. With Troy Ermish responsible for building Tanto, much of that sort of race-inspired tech has made its way onto the car, aided by a fantastic power plant.
The L-series four-cylinder was built by Rebello Racing to displace 2.4-liters, and now produces almost 240 horsepower on premium pump gas.
Fresh air is sucked through color-keyed velocity stacks that sit on 44mm side-draft Mikuni carburetors, and spent fumes trumpet through an Ermish-built header and exhaust system.
The engine transfers power through a lightweight flywheel into a 5-speed manual transmission taken from 280ZX. Out back, an R200 limited slip differential with 4.11:1 gears transfers drive to the wheels.
These are proven parts capable of handling the power, but the way the older chassis handles it is really what makes all the difference here. You can’t see the fully-adjustable suspension setup from Troy Ermish, but you certainly can feel it at speed.
I didn’t have the pleasure of experiencing the car through any twisty canyon roads, but just on the uneven streets in town it was amazing how it simply absorbed everything, despite being fairly stiff. Most older cars often tend to have a skittish quality, complemented by a lot of rattles and shakes. Not this one.
I would have complete confidence in the Ermish adjustable control arms, adjustable dampers, camber plates, and other components in the race-bred system in any environment. The power output and suspension are well-sorted in relation to each other, and are further complemented with a four-wheel disc brake setup.
Performance-wise, the car is perfectly proportioned, and of course its vastly improved drivability is not at odds with its aesthetic upgrades, either.Balance
Summed up, this is the recipe for a perfect build in my book.
First, Daniel didn’t just choose a car at random, or because it was popular at the time. Instead, he had been bouncing around the idea of owning a 510 for two decades while he lived in Hong Kong. Daniel said he wasn’t really able to own and enjoy cars in HK in the same way he can in the US due to the lack of space and strict regulations.
Then, when he finally acquired the car of his teenage dreams, he was thoughtful and calculated about how the car should present as a whole. No single detail outshines the overall car, and no system bottlenecks another.
There are no trendy bolt-ons or a wild wide-body to be seen here. It doesn’t boast an out-of-the-box engine swap or forced induction for huge horsepower figures, and doesn’t rely on a slew of products to garner attention. Rather, it’s a fundamental project.
It’s all too often that the allure of a SEMA car results in an unbalanced build, one that’s either never finished or never makes sense in the real world. Or sometimes they’re short-lived cars that, sadly, never see many miles on the road.
Quite the contrary to that, Tanto is a fantastically conceived car that actually can be used for a cruise through downtown or a spirited drive up a mountain pass, and wouldn’t be out of place at a track day, either.
It’s a beautifully well-balanced thing, just like the knife-like sword it was named after: the tantō. Small — with not quite the renown of its larger sibling — but precise and potent. A 510 that has made and continues to make an impact, Daniel’s 510 is a timeless creation.
Trevor Yale Ryan